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164. The Essential Guide to Grad School Applications

Do you hear it? It’s the sound of hopeful scientists frantically typing out their grad school applications!

They’re pondering the best format for a CV, scouring University websites to learn more about each graduate program, and begging their research advisors to PLEASE make the time to write that letter of recommendation!

The silence you hear is the sound of trepidation as they sit down to write their personal statements….

This week on the show, we unpack the essential elements of a grad school application, and what you need to know before you begin.

During application season, you might be short on time and long on things to do. We get it.

That’s why we’ve condensed our application advice into one, easy to listen, episode. Here are the essentials:

Where to Apply?

Grad school applications are expensive: they cost both money AND time.

Even if you happen to have enough money to apply to 20 or 30 schools, you probably don’t have the time.

And we recommend that you limit your applications to places you’d actually like to go. Graduate school is a multi-year commitment, and you shouldn’t apply to schools that can’t teach you what you want to know.

It’s better to apply to the few programs you really want to attend than to get into a school that doesn’t match your interests. Even if you get in, you’ll be stuck in a research track you never really wanted.

For more on this important subject, see Episode 101: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Knowing When, and Where, to Apply with Dr. Beth Bowman

The CV

Applications will require your CV. It should be composed in reverse-chronological order, with your education and most recent research experiences first.

Remember: any lab experience you list in your CV should have a matching letter of recommendation later in the application.

And if you happen to have publications or presentations at major conferences, be sure to list those with your own name in bold font so that the reviewer can quickly spot your name in the longer list of contributors.

Your Transcript

Here’s some good news: biomedical PhD programs are less focused on your GPA than other programs might be. Reviewers are MORE interested in whether you have experience doing research in a lab or in the field.

That said, they want to see that you’ve gained the background you need to succeed. That usually means coursework in advanced sciences like molecular biology, biochemistry, and organic chemistry.

If you don’t have this experience, or your GPA is lower than you’d like, it’s not the end of the road. Use the Personal Statement to make a case for your readiness, in spite of some gaps in your transcript.

For more, check out Episode 152. How Do I Explain the Bad Grades On My Transcript?

Personal Statement

This is the trickiest section for most students. How do you describe your interest in research and affinity for the program without resorting to flowery language or flattery?

We recommend describing the overarching theme your prior research lab has focused on, and how your project answered a specific question within that theme.

Avoid detailed descriptions of your individual experiments – if you feel the need to use the word ‘microliters’ in your statement, you’ve gone too far!

Have someone outside your lab read your statement to make sure it’s clear and avoids subject-specific jargon or acronyms. This might be a postdoc or faculty member who is scientifically trained, but not versed in your day-to-day work.

If you have concerns in your transcript like a poor semester due to personal or family issues, acknowledge and explain that gap briefly near the end. The reviewer will appreciate the added context.

For more guidance on your personal statement, check out Episdode 102: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Crafting the Perfect Personal Statement with Dr. Brian Rybarczyk.

Letters of Recommendation

Last, but certainly not least, are your letters of recommendation.

These should come from the research advisors in the labs you listed as experience in your CV. Reviewers will be expecting to hear from those advisors, and a missing letter could be a red flag.

We’ve given a lot of advice over the years about these letters, because they’re so important and so many things can go wrong. Sometimes, you have a bad experience that you don’t want to include, or sometimes the PI is too busy to write.

Applicants often wonder whether it’s okay to include a letter from a class instructor or other professor, but those don’t add much weight to your application. Remember, reviewers want to see evidence that you’ll succeed in research, and scoring well on classes or tests doesn’t really tell them much about your potential in the lab.

That’s it for this episode, but we’ve got many more resources for applicants! Check out the following episodes, use our search bar to find related topics, or drop us an email to hear your question answered on the show!

084: The 4 Keys to an Effective Grad School Application

101: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Knowing When, and Where, to Apply with Dr. Beth Bowman

102: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Crafting the Perfect Personal Statement with Dr. Brian Rybarczyk

106: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Acing Your Interview with Dr. Beth Bowman

109: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Understanding Your Offer Letter with Dr. Emily Roberts

129. Grad School Rejection: Why it Happens and How to Get Accepted

140. Mailbag: Do I need more experience? Biology vs. biomedical. Et al!

146. Ace Your Virtual Graduate School Interview w/ Dr. Beth Bowman

152. How Do I Explain the Bad Grades On My Transcript?

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